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   by Jacob Solomon

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The Prophet Habakkuk declares:
"I heard. My stomach trembled…
The day that was to be my rest,
Will turn to a day of affliction,
When they come against the people, to attack them." (Habakkuk 3:16)

The short Book of Habakkuk fits neatly complements the contents of the first chapter of Ezekiel, read on the first day of Shavuot. Ezekiel sees a vision of G-d where his intense Presence transfers from Judea to a foreign land with the exiled Israelites. Habakkuk conveys that very Presence returning to the Holy Land, and utterly destroying its invaders. And whereas Ezekiel focuses on the vision of the glory of G-d through His celestial beings, Habakkuk's prophecy center on the effect that G-d has on mankind and the world.

Habakkuk is deeply disturbed by the unparalleled violence of the Babylonians - the nation that overthrew the might of the Assyrian empire and became the great power over the entire Middle East in the late seventh and sixth centuries BCE. Its many victims, of course, included not only Egypt, but also Judea and the First Temple.

He asks the age-old question of why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. "You (G-d), Whose eyes are too pure to behold evil, Who cannot bear to witness wrongdoing - why do You… watch in silence as the wicked devour those more righteous than they?" (1:13) G-d answers that He will dispense justice in good time, and meanwhile, "the righteous will live in their faith." (2:4) The Malbim states that this much-quoted phrase refers to individuals who do not attempt to calculate when the redemption will begin, but rather place their trust in G-d and wait patiently for the prophecies to be fulfilled.

That may help to explain the opening verse of the Haftara: 'G-d is in His holy abode. Let the entire world be silent before Him.' (2:20) G-d is looking all the time. However devastating and unpleasant it is to watch the wicked prospering at the expense of good people, He is still there. And his presence is palpable to those who have the sensitivity of spirit to perceive Him… So wait silently and do not protest…

The Haftara itself is a prayer of the Prophet Habakkuk - indeed it structurally resembles the Psalms, with a heading and a direction for the use of musical instruments. Rosenberg (The Haftara Cycle p.307) argues that it is unlikely that the text is an actual psalm sung in the Temple. It is more likely that Habakkuk adopted this form to stress his hope for the future, and that his prophesies, when realized, would be used as a hymn of praise and faith in the Temple of the future.

In his prayer, Habakkuk asks G-d to bring the downfall of the mighty Babylonian Empire and thus alleviate the great suffering of the Israelites. In reply, G-d will come back from 'Teman, from Mount Paran… although His majesty covers the skies, His splendor fills the Earth.' (3:3) Teman is in the south, and in modern day terms, that name is applied to Yemen. G-d will punish 'the tents of Kush and Midian' (3:7), the tent-dwelling nations of Arabia that stand in His way. Nature will halt in respect to G-d, and submit itself to His will. 'Sun and moon will stand still…' (3:11) as G-d rushes forward to save His people and His anointed (3:13) - the future Messiah, according to both the Radak and the Malbim. G-d's wrath against the nations who harmed Israel is so frightening that the Prophet himself trembles when he sees its extent in his vision. And even nature freezes in its own path: 'the fig tree does not blossom, there is no yield on the vines… flocks are cut off from the folds, there is no cattle in the stalls.' (3:17)

However, destruction and desolation will not last forever. Civilization will settle down to a new order, and Israel will get new strength. 'Yet I will rejoice in G-d… the L-rd G-d is my strength… and directs me upon my heights.' (3:18) Many commentators understand this concluding verse as Habakkuk writing in the name of the entire Israelite nation, who will thank G-d for having saved them in the battles preceding the Final Redemption (Radak).

Unlike other prophets, the text says nothing explicit about the origins and personal background of the Prophet Habakkuk. However he appears to be writing just before Babylon rose to become the great power of the region. He predicts both its rise from humble origins and it cataclysmic fall at the hands of the Almighty. That would place his prophecies in the late seventh century BCE, a few decades before Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

D'var Torah

The text of the Haftara brings detailed illustrations of the nature of the destruction of Israel's enemies before the Final Redemption. Given the background and extent of Israel's sufferings, Habakkuk ought to have been pleased that natural justice would finally catch up with civilization's bullies. True, King Solomon urges 'Do not rejoice when your enemies fall' (Proverbs ). But why should Habakkuk personally fear for the Jews when the events before the Final Redemption take place? Why should his 'stomach tremble', his 'lips quiver'? Why does 'decay enter (his) bones'? And for the Israelites as a whole: why would that 'day that was to be' his 'rest' turn into 'a day of affliction when the enemy come against the people to attack them'? (3:16)

The Malbim explains the background to the passage as follows. Part of the beauty of the Haftara is its timelessness. It may be applied to the fall of the Babylon; it may equally be related, as the Malbim develops, to the Final Redemption. Habakkuk trembled as he was given a glimpse into the future, where he foresaw the great afflictions Israel would endure in the years immediately preceding the coming of the Messiah. He even heard the words the Israelites would intensely pray whilst undergoing deepest suffering - as the Israelite nation have a tradition that affliction foreshadows redemption. Thus the sound of those prayers and the vision of the massacres, and terrible ordeals they would be forced to endure, made the prophet's very soul shudder.

The Alshich went even further. He explains that the Israelites needed to suffer: to undergo trials and tribulations as a preparation for the Redemption itself. Unless a sinner sincerely repents, G-d does not absolve him from Divine justice. So were He even to grant Habakkuk's wish that they would not be punished by the Babylonians (or by extension, their counterparts in later generations), they would nevertheless incur Heaven-ordained afflictions. It was revealed to him that it would come in the form of a severe famine - an even harsher death that the sword (as in Lamentations 4:9). And the actual date of redemption - 'the day that was to be my rest' would turn into a 'day of affliction'. Thus it was shown to Habakkuk that the Israelite return to the Holy Land would not be the end of their suffering: they would go through many painful events until the final arrival of the Messiah.

The following story - within living memory, appears to illustrate the type of vision Habakkuk saw. It was related by Stanislaw Sattler, a survivor of Auschwitz. He recalls a fellow prisoner in that death camp telling him the story of a certain tzadik - righteous servant of G-d. When Sattler asked that gentleman: 'when will this murdering end?' he was told the following story:

(Some time before to Holocaust) … a tzadik lived in an Ukrainian village and before his death as an old man, he revealed what people wanted to know, but should not. Knowing, said the tzadik, inflicts pain, suffering, and distress. Sadness works against hope and hope is 'bitachon' (trust in the Almighty)… It is better when people do not know.

But some people forced him to talk, so he went on to predict the coming of the Messiah. 'The period preceding this, however, would be a bloody time of wars, fire, famine, epidemics, revolutions, and chaos. Periods of violent changes would wipe out the existing order along with the guilty and the innocent alike. The angel of death would ride high during that period… An independent Poland, which would last twenty years, would give way to the most terrible period of death… Innocent men, women, and children would perish, and still death would not be satisfied. Woe to the people of this period!' A stream of tears convulsed the body of the tzadik, and nothing else he said was possible to understand.

Later on he continued: 'After this period, Israel would get back the Promised Land. The survivors would return from exile, but it would take years to settle down and the rebirth would be painful. There are things which we can't understand. The essence of G-d's rule is too difficult for we ordinary people to grasp.' (Sattler S. Prisoner of 68 Months - Buchenwald and Auschwitz 1981).

However the prophet urges people to remain steadfast during those hard times; in the following words:

'The fig tree does not blossom, there is no yield on the vines.
'The olive produce is lean, the fields produce no harvest.
'Flocks are cut off from the folds, there will be no cattle in the stalls.' (3:17)

As the Malbim explains, it teaches that when the Israelite nation's condition will be at its lowest, they will be approaching the Full Redemption: words of great encouragement for today. As Habakkuk continues:

'Yet I (the Israelite nation: Rashi, Radak) will rejoice in G-d… who is my strength.
'He makes my feet like the deer's, and directs me upon my heights' (Jerusalem: Radak, Malbim). (3:18-19)

May that be fully realized, quickly, and in our times.

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Also by Jacob Solomon:
Between the Fish and the Soup

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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